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Voices Past the Verge

Female Ensemble Gets Live in Boston

By Vanessa Selbst

Voices on the Verge

Paradise Rock Club

October 2, 2001

Eight p.m. -- The room is close to empty. There's no one in sight, not even the opening act. Slowly, the floor encompassing the stage at the Paradise Rock Club becomes more and more crowded. Twenty-five minutes later, Lori McKenna comes out as the guest opening act, and to the surprise and delight of all the fans around her, out comes Meg Toohey. McKenna introduces herself, and her “friend, Meg Toohey” suggesting Meg to be an unknown singer.

Of course, most folk fans will recognize Toohey, far from untalented, as the musician who just finished a four show stint at T.T. the Bear’s. McKenna and Toohey, who could usually fill a room on their own, dropped by Paradise to help Erin Mckeown, Beth Amsel, Jess Klein, and Rose Polenzani (collectively known as Voices on the Verge) to celebrate the release of their new album, Live in Philadelphia.

McKenna opened by delighting the crowd with a favorite, “Fireflies.” Unfortunately, there was barely anyone in the room at that point to enjoy it, and those that were there seemed dead. Either they had no idea what kind of talent they were watching, or they were antsy to see the featured foursome. Of course, who could blame them? They did exert a bit of life, however, when McKenna finished her first song and told an anecdote about her next piece. While she spoke of her 90-year-old grandmother and her soon to be 90-year-old grandfather, Meg switched to an acoustic guitar. Then they played “Dance With the Ladies,” a song about the adventures of McKenna’s grandfather living it up as the babe of his nursing home.

By the sixth song, the crowd came alive, antagonized by McKenna's troubles tuning and otherwise. After a few minutes of exasperation, an “Oh boy” comes from McKenna's mouth, followed by a “Rock and roll!” from an excited (or bored) fan. “Time for an oldie but goodie,” says McKenna, who still can't seem to find the right pitch. Eventually, the oldie in “oldie but goodie” was apparent when halfway through the song, McKenna forgot the words to “As I Am.” She replaces the forgotten words with “Let's just go to the chorus,” before conferring with Meg. It was a beautiful save -- hardly a beat was skipped. At the end of the song, McKenna informed the crowd of the real name of the previous song. “That's called Meg Toohey saving the ass of Lori McKenna.” “I think it's time to breast feed someone ... but no one in the crowd” the new mother continues to ramble before declaring “I think I know this next song.” Indeed, she did, and she ended the set with “,” a song verging from folk to country, with a nice lively beat to excite the crowd for what was to come.

9:30 p.m. Enter Klein, Amsel, Polenzani, and Mckeown. They introduce themselves as Voices on the Verge, a name they picked for their group, which was initially intended to be the name on their posters for just one performance at the Iron Horse in Northampton, MA. They never intended to go on tour or produce an album, but the current tour now features songs from their new album, Voices on the Verge: Live in Philadelphia. That album, released the night of the show, was recorded over two live performances that took place in Philadelphia in March of 2000. It includes songs written by each of the four singer/songwriters, as well as a cover of a song written by Maggie Simpson called “Hunger.”

As Klein, Amsel, Erin, and Polenzani walk on the stage, Erin and Polenzani pick up their guitars while Klein and Amsel walk over to their microphones. They stand with Amsel to the far left, Mckeown to her right, Klein to her right, and Polenzani to the far right. Polenzani opens as the album does, with “Heaven Release Us.” Immediately after the song, Polenzani looks around to the now packed Paradise Rock Club. She tells us that she was standing on the floor during McKenna’s set, and that the vocals and sound were amazing.

From the end of the first song on, the theme of the night was experimentation with different instruments. For the second song, “Ireland,” sung and written by Klein Klein, Polenzani picks up a tambourine while the three other folk goddesses are clutching their guitars. During every chorus, Klein and McKeown turn towards each other, violently strumming their guitar. They were on and they knew it.

The next song was McKeown’s “Didn't They.” McKeown declares “The best part of playing as Voices on the Verge is that [they] get to try out different instruments and sounds.” Polenzani then holds up two metal brushes and taps on her box to complete the “Brushes and Box” instrument combination. All four feet and eleven inches of McKeown are rocking, her voice filling the room. She then stops singing long enough for Klein to impress us all with a beautiful clarinet solo before continuing with a bit of scat. A regular Ella Fitzgerald; one might have been confused had McKeown been taller, more dead, and more black (African-American for the politically correct.)

Before the next song, Amsel informs us that all four of them are currently living in Massachusetts, though none of them are “from” Massachusetts. McKeown is quick to jump in and clarify that she was, in fact, born in the Union Oyster House in Massachusetts. She decides to forego the oyster jokes and continue with a song, instead. A wonderful plan, had they not been faced with more technical difficulties. Their troubles came out to be a blessing when we got to experience the sense of humor that is a large part of Voices on the Verge. As Amsel fumbles with her guitar, Polenzani comes to her rescue, as Klein gives the play by play. Finally, they manage to figure things out, and Amsel sings “Louise” while McKeown plays the drums and Klein the tambourine.

Over the next few songs, we got to experience even more rare sounds. McKeown breaks out the accordion for Polenzani's “Thom II,” and during McKeown's “Softly Moses,” Polenzani plays a rare instrument unknown to even a friend of mine who is majoring in music. She declares it to be “some percussion thing,” but whatever it was, Polenzani used it beautifully. Perhaps the biggest instrumental treat of the evening, however, was the lack of any instruments at all. The eighth number that evening was the cover of “Hunger,” which Amsel sang a cappella, with Klein, McKeown, and Polenzani all harmonizing in the background. That was indeed the climax of the evening. The concert could have ended right there and everyone would have surely gone home satisfied, but it didn’t.

More songs included “Blackbirds,” “Queen of Quiet,” “House You're Living in,” and “Long Island Sound,” Klein and Amsel sat down as McKeown turned toward Polenzani and played “You Don't Know,” a song that Polenzani had written for McKeown. These four musicians have gotten extremely close, as anyone would touring together for two years, and it was obvious by the looks between McKeown and Polenzani during that song as well as the happy gazes with which Klein and Amsel watched the two of them. Later, the four covered Softcell's “Tainted Love,” which was unexpected to say the least, but nothing short of amazing.

The encore was Klein's “Little White Dove.”

This was one amazing concert by one amazing group who put out a tremendous album; Voices on the Verge: Live in Philadelphia. The name is deceiving though. Anyone who attended the concert might be fooled into thinking that these four singers are past the verge, becoming more mainstream in the folk community every day.